"Playboy Club": A surprising comeback continues


A few years ago, with the Playboy empire in decline, no one would have expected this. Somehow, the creation of Hugh Hefner, 85, has made it back into the media spotlight.

"The Playboy Club" opens tonight on NBC, amid much buzz (good and bad) and wildly mixed reviews. Also, Playboy keeps showing up elsewhere. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

LOS ANGELES – Standing on the Playboy
Mansion grounds, John Salley seemed out of place.

He wasn't, he said. “Man, I feel like
I've always lived here.”

Visually, that didn't click. He's 47,
black, 6-foot-11, athletic; many of the people on the mansion grounds
were young, white and slender, negotiating the cobblestone in short
dresses and high heels.

But for a guy who grew up in Brooklyn
and spent six pro-basketball years Detroit, this fits a broader
image. “When we visited (California), I told my mother, 'I'm going
to live here some day,” Salley said.

Maybe that explains – a little bit –
why Playboy keeps resurfacing in media, including an NBC series. With some generations, the fantasyland image persists.

It has been 58 years since Playboy
magazine began, decades since its American clubs closed. “I'm happy
to say that the film that was made (in 1985) out of the expose I did
lasted longer than the clubs it was exposing,” Gloria Steinem said.

Still, Playboy keeps resurfacing,
including NBC's “The Playboy Club,” which is set in 1961 and
focuses on the women working as “bunnies.”

“It's empowering,” insisted co-star
Naturi Naughton, “because these girls are smart, they're going to
school, they're buying homes, (doing things) women weren't able to do
at that time.”

They weren't victimized, argued Amber
Heard, who stars. “It's a … puritanical way we look at things,
that we consider if it involves sexuality, the women must be
compromised.”

People will argue about that after
seeing the opener, in which her character needs a macho man to rescue
her from a mobster. Still, the show is part of a Playboy comeback
via:

– A reality-TV surge on cable. “The
Girls Next Door” (about Hefner's girlfriends) led to spin-offs
“Kendra” and “Holly's World”; Hefner has been in 10 episodes
of E's “True Hollywood Story.”

– The NBC series, with its stylish,
early-'60s flavor. “Basically, it's 'Mad Men' with boobs,” jokes
Joel McHale of NBC's “Community.”

– The Playboy Channel, which has
added “TV For Two”shows aimed at couples. It was putting on this
party on the mansion grounds, with reporters and others. Salley,
developing an unspecified show for the channel, was there. So was
Jennifer Pershing, the Playmate in the Playboy issue of March, 2009.
“It's always been a dream of mine,” she said.

Pershing grew up in Somers Point, N.J.,
a harbor town of 12,000, south of Atlantic City. When she was spotted
(in a Los Angeles rock club) and chosen as a Playmate, she was
already 28 and married. “If it had happened when I was younger, it
might have been overwhelming,” she said.

Now she was conducting a tour of the
grounds – the mini-zoo with monkeys, the grotto where people can
feel like they're in a warm-water cave, the peacocks (and people)
that strut by casually.

There's an other-world feel, something
the clubs sought. “It's Disneyland for adults,” Naughton said.

Smart people can savor the image,
insisted NBC programmer Robert Greenblatt. “Some famous women were
once bunnies, including Barbara Walters, Lauren Hutton, Deborah
Harry, Susan Sullivan, … Federal Judge Kimba Wood and Dr. Polly
Matzinger, a world-renowned immunologist.”

Actually, Walters only did it for a
“Today” report on being a bunny. “I really didn't enjoy doing
that story, which took two days of filming,” she wrote in her
autobiography.

Steinem was there longer, researching
her undercover story. Long after the clubs vanished, Hefner, 85,
remains of interest. “There is a kind of horrible fascination,”
she said.

It is an odd mixture of fantasy,
fascination and other-world wonder. It sweeps Brooklyn boys and
Jersey girls to a different world, filled with music, monkeys and
sleek bodies.

– “The Playboy Club,” 10 p.m.
Mondays, NBC, debuting Sept.19

– E, now a sister channel to NBC, has
a new “Kendra” season starting 11 p.m. Sept. 25; it also has
frequent reruns, include “True Hollywood Story: Kendra Wilkinson,”
9 p.m. Sept. 22

– Playboy Channel; see
www.playboytv.com